How the Amazon Kindle Works


Lighter than many paperbacks, the Amazon Kindle can hold a small library of books. See more pictures of essential gadgets.
Courtesy Amazon.com

In 2007, the Internet commerce company Amazon introduced a $399 electronic book (e-book) reader called the Kindle. The Kindle wasn't the first dedicated e-book reader device, but it didn't really have much competition -- there wasn't a huge demand in the market for e-book readers before the Kindle's launch.

Amazon has two distinct advantages over earlier e-book manufacturers. The first is that the company designed the Kindle to interface seamlessly with Amazon's online store. Amazon.com hosts more than a million titles in electronic format. Because the Kindle is wireless, you can access the store without connecting the device to a computer. You can buy a book or subscribe to an electronic version of a newspaper on Amazon and download it directly to the Kindle. The second advantage is that Amazon has a large customer base. Both of these factors give the Kindle a leg up on the competition.

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Why would you want to use an e-book reader in the first place? One reason is that a single e-book reader can hold many titles. The $69 Kindle, Amazon's base model, can hold up to 1,400 titles (books, newspapers, magazines and blogs) in its memory [source: Amazon]. The newer models also offer WiFi connectivity. The original Kindle had a port that allowed users to save titles to a memory card, extending the device's capacity, which appealed to people who like the idea of having an electronic library that takes up very little physical space. The models available today do not have card slots, but available Kindle models come with 2 or 4 gigabytes of storage space, and Amazon also stores your entire library in the cloud, allowing you to delete and re-download titles at will to organize and save space.

The Kindle's memory capacity also makes it very convenient for travelers. With a Kindle, you don't have to worry about packing heavy books in your luggage to keep you occupied for your whole trip. A single Kindle can hold more than enough titles to tide you over. And if you decide you want something completely different midway through your travels (as long as you're traveling in the United States or a country in which Amazon offers service for its international Kindle), you can always use the Kindle to access Amazon's store and buy a new book.

The Kindle also has several functions that you may find helpful while reading. You can bookmark a page, highlight a selection of text or even type notes as you read. With these features, the Kindle has the potential to replace hardcopy textbooks in the future, something many students would probably welcome. While they would no longer be able to sell a used copy of a textbook at the end of a term, they wouldn't have to tote around a backpack filled with hefty books either.

Next, we'll take a closer look at the Kindle.

Amazon Kindle Layout

While the original Kindle only came in off-white, newer versions of the basic model have been released in graphite and onyx black.
While the original Kindle only came in off-white, newer versions of the basic model have been released in graphite and onyx black.
Courtesy Amazon

The original Kindle has an off-white plastic casing and an asymmetric, beveled shape, like a closed three-ring binder. It has a rubberized back that makes it easier for users to hold the device. It's 7.5 inches (19 centimeters) long and 5.3 inches (13.5 centimeters) wide. It's only 0.7 inches (1.8 centimeters) thick and weighs a mere 10.3 ounces.

Amazon has changed the design of the Kindle a few times since its introduction. The third-generation device, also known as the Kindle Keyboard, is less angular than the original model. It initially came in two versions: a WiFi-only model and a 3G and WiFi model, the former of which is no longer available. The Kindle DX, a larger keyboard-laden e-reader with a 9.7-inch (24.6-centimeter) diagonal screen, has also been discontinued. The Keyboard 3G is just as tall as the first Kindle, but is less angular and a little narrower at 4.8 inches (12.2 centimeters) wide. It's 0.34 inches (8.5 millimeters) thick and weighs 8.7 ounces (247 grams).

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In September 2011, Amazon unveiled three new Kindle models with E Ink electronic ink (we'll talk about this technology more later) displays like the originals, along with a tablet called the Kindle Fire. The first new Kindle model, which is now the base model for Amazon, uses a five-way controller and doesn't have a physical keyboard. It's the smallest Kindle yet, measuring in at 6.5 inches (17.3 centimeters) long and 4.5 inches (11.4 centimeters) wide and weighing 6 ounces (170.1 grams). Two Kindle Touch models -- one a WiFi only and the other a 3G and WiFi device, both with touch-screen interfaces and very few physical controls -- were also introduced, but have since been discontinued in favor of the new Kindle Paperwhite devices.

The Kindle Paperwhite and Paperwhite 3G were released in October 2012. The Paperwhite is similar to the Kindle Touch in appearance and size, measuring 6.7 inches (17 centimeters) long and 4.6 inches (11.7 centimeters) wide. Two differences on the new device are a lit screen and the omission of the physical home button. Aside from the power button, the only interface on the Paperwhite is the touch-screen.

The central feature on all the Kindle models, with the exception of the Kindle Fire tablet, is the electronic paper screen. The screens on all Kindle models except the Fire and the recently discontinued DX measure 6 inches (15.2 centimeters) along the diagonal. Kindle Keyboard 3G and the base Kindle have a resolution of 167 pixels per inch (PPI), whereas the new Paperwhite models have a resolution of 212 PPI [source: Amazon]. The screen can display images in 16 levels of gray using a technology called E Ink. Unlike LCD screens, the Kindle e-reader's screen isn't backlit. For all but the Paperwhite, you'll need a reading light if you want to skim a novel in a setting with little ambient light. And even the Paperwhite is not actually backlit like a tablet. Read on to find out more about the various Kindle features.

Features of the Kindle Keyboard

The Kindle Keyboard, released in 2011, looks a lot like the Kindle 2.
The Kindle Keyboard, released in 2011, looks a lot like the Kindle 2.
Courtesy Amazon

On either side of the Kindle Keyboard's screen you'll find two large buttons for "next page" and "previous page." The buttons have been completely redesigned since the first Kindle was released; some reviewers commented that the "back" and "previous page" buttons on the original Kindle sometimes function identically and at other times they do different things, which can cause confusion. Several critics pointed out that the placement of the buttons makes it easy for users to accidentally turn a page just by picking up the Kindle.

Beneath the screen on the original Kindle are a scroll wheel, a full keypad and an array of function buttons. The scroll wheel acts as a navigation interface -- like a mouse -- allowing the user to select options or specific lines of text. Pressing down on the wheel is like clicking a button on the mouse -- it lets you activate options. Newer Kindles replace the scroll wheel with a direction pad for navigation. The keypad allows you to use the search feature or type notes while reading text. Home, Back and Menu buttons help you navigate through books and use the built-in Web browser.

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On the base of the Kindle you'll find a headphone jack (the Kindle can play MP3 files), a USB port and a power adapter plug. You'll also find a pair of volume buttons. The power button is on the back of the Kindle along with a switch that activates the Kindle's wireless receiver. Underneath the removable rubberized pad is a slot that can accept a standard SD flash memory card. You'll also find the Kindle's removable battery pack there. Amazon removed the option to add memory or replace the battery on the Kindle 2 and Kindle DX. For the third-generation Kindle readers, the power switch was moved to the base of the device, along with all the other ports [source: Perenson].

The Kindle Keyboard comes with a USB cable and a power adapter. The original Kindle also came with a protective book cover, which has a padded section that protects the screen and an elastic band that holds it closed. Amazon also has a selection of accessories for the Kindle, including leather covers and adapters for non-U.S. electrical systems.

Next, we'll take a closer look at the latest Kindles to hit the virtual shelves at Amazon.

Look Ma, (Almost) No Buttons!

The Kindle Fire is a full-color tablet running a version of the Android operating system.
The Kindle Fire is a full-color tablet running a version of the Android operating system.
Courtesy Amazon

The 2011 redesign of the Kindle line was dramatic. Many of the controls found on the earlier models of the Kindle disappeared. The basic Kindle replaced the keyboard and page controls with four buttons and a five-way controller. Touch-screen Kindle Touch models with two buttons -- one to turn the device on or off and a home button that returns you to the main menu -- were also introduced. And in 2012, two new Kindle Paperwhite models were unveiled with only a power button and the touch-screen, replacing the Kindle Touch entirely.

The basic $69 Kindle doesn't support audio -- there's no speaker or headphone jack. To page through a book, you use the "previous page" and "next page" buttons. One of each is found on either side of the device. The top buttons page back, and the bottom buttons page forward so you can flip pages with either hand. The five-way controller can be used to move the cursor to text on the page for highlighting and selection purposes, to scroll through and select menu items or to skip from chapter to chapter or article to article in certain books and magazines. To type in notes or to browse blogs, you can pull up a virtual keyboard with the keyboard button and enter keystrokes using the five-way controller. If that seems cumbersome or time-consuming, you can opt for a Keyboard Kindle or get one of the Kindle Paperwhite models, which like the discontinued Touch devices have multi-touch touchscreens that allow you to type on the virtual keyboard, but unlike the Touch, do not support audio.

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With the Kindle Paperwhite devices, all your navigation uses the touch-screen interface. Once in a book, tapping a thin strip on the leftmost edge of the screen pages back, and tapping anything to the right of that strip pages forward. You can also use swipe gestures to page forward or backward. Tapping the top of the screen brings up toolbar with six icons that allow you to go to the Home page, go back, adjust brightness, go to the Kindle store, search and bring up menu options, respectively. A virtual keyboard allows you to type notes and browse.

The Kindle Keyboard 3G is the only Kindle still available that supports audio. You can listen to audiobooks or MP3s on the Keyboard, or use the Text-to-Speech feature that reads materials to you aloud, as long as the copyright holder permits this. The Keyboard 3G device has rear-mounted speakers and a 3.5-millimeter audio jack.

Most Kindles come with a USB cable for charging or file transfer through your computer, and a power adapter for the USB cable for recharging through a wall power outlet. However, the new Paperwhite only comes with the USB cable, and if you want a wall adapter, you have to purchase it separately.

The Kindle Fire is more of a tablet than a traditional e-reader. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to the Blackberry Playbook. Like the Kindle Touch and Paperwhite models, the Fire has a touch-screen user interface. But it doesn't feature an E Ink display. Instead, it has an in-plane switching (IPS), liquid crystal display (LCD). It features a special browser developed by Amazon called Silk. Underneath all the flash of the device is a heavily modified version of the Android operating system. A new HD version of the Fire was introduced in 2012.

Now let's take a look at what makes the Kindle work.

Inside the Amazon Kindle

At its most basic level, the Kindle is just a specialized portable computer. It has many of the bits and pieces you'd expect to find in any computing system. It also has a couple of elements that set it apart from your average computer.

Most of the Kindle's components attach directly to a circuit board. The circuit board acts as the foundation for electronic circuits in the Kindle. Most of the components are inseparable from the board. The various chips on the board are microcontrollers for the keyboard, scroll wheel, touch-screen interface, five-way controller or joystick, USB port and other interfaces.

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The Kindle draws its power from a rechargeable lithium-polymer battery. With the original Kindle, you can access the battery without taking the case apart. The rubberized grip on the back of the Kindle covers up the battery. According to Amazon, the battery will provide power to the original Kindle for up to a week without the need for recharging as long as the wireless function is switched off. The Kindle 2 and Kindle DX doubled the battery life to two weeks with the WiFi feature turned off (one week with it on). Amazon made the battery accessible on the original Kindle so that users could replace the battery if it failed. That feature isn't available on the later Kindle models.

Later versions of the Kindle pushed battery life even further. Amazon claims that the basic Kindle's battery will last one month with the WiFi turned off. The Kindle Touch and Kindle Keyboard models can last up to two months. And similarly, the Kindle Paperwhite models can reportedly last eight weeks with WiFi off, 30 minutes of reading time daily and brightness turned down to 10 from the maximum setting of 23. The Kindle Fire, Amazon's tablet, is the odd man out -- it has an eight-hour battery life.

All versions of the Kindle -- with the exception of the Kindle Fire -- use a Linux-based operating system. According to hardware hacker Igor Skochinsky, it uses the Das U-Boot bootloader to initialize its OS. Skochinsky experimented with a Kindle and discovered several interesting commands, shortcuts and hidden applications within the Kindle's OS. For example, he discovered that if you press the Alt key, Shift key and M key while in the Home menu, the original Kindle will open up a game of Minesweeper [source: Skochinsky].

The Kindle Fire uses a modified version of the Android operating system. Android comes from Google and is a popular operating system in various smartphones and tablets. However, Amazon's version of the operating system doesn't resemble other versions of Android on the surface. You'll only notice the similarities if you're taking a hard look at the source code.

Above the circuit board on most Kindle models you'll find the Kindle's electronic paper screen. We'll take a closer look at this screen in the next section.

The E-book Reader Display

The Kindle's form factor makes it easy to use and to carry around with you.
The Kindle's form factor makes it easy to use and to carry around with you.
Courtesy Amazon

One complaint some people had about early e-book readers was that they found it difficult to read words on an LCD display. Some users complained that longer reading sessions put too much strain on their eyes. Amazon's solution to this problem was to use electronic ink technology. The Kindle's electronic ink screen looks more like paper than an LCD screen. It reflects light in much the same way that paper does. The screen lacks a backlight, so, with the exception of the new Paperwhite, you'll need an external light source in order to read anything.

A company called E Ink in Cambridge, Mass., developed the technology the Kindle relies upon to display text and images. Rather than use the liquid crystals you'd find in an LCD or the ionized gas you'd find in a plasma display, electronic ink actually uses millions of microcapsules, only a few microns wide. Each microcapsule contains a clear fluid and thousands of white and black particles. The white particles carry a positive magnetic charge and the black particles have a negative charge.

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It's these positively and negatively charged particles inside the microcapsules that make electronic ink displays possible. An array of thousands of tiny electrodes lies beneath the electronic ink display. When an electrode emits a negative charge, it repels the negatively charged black balls, pushing them to the top of the microcapsule. At the same time, the negative charge attracts the positively charged white particles to the bottom of the microcapsule. When the electrode emits a positive charge, the white and black particles switch places and the screen appears to be blank.

Working together, thousands of electrodes and millions of microcapsules generate the text and images you can see on an electronic ink display. Through precise charges the Kindle can display a range of grays to provide shading in images. You can even adjust the Kindle's font settings to display text in a larger or smaller font size.

The Kindle uses less energy to generate a page view than a comparable LCD or plasma screen. The company's Web site states that the Kindle pulls power from its battery only during the initial page generation. It doesn't require more power until the user changes the page view. Because of this feature, the Kindle's battery can provide power for up to two months on a single charge (assuming the user doesn't have the wireless feature turned on).

The electronic ink display is one of the Amazon Kindle's top selling points. Read on to find out about screen and display changes in the newest Kindle, the Paperwhite.

The New Front-Lit Paperwhite

The Amazon Kindle Paperwhite, released in October 2012
The Amazon Kindle Paperwhite, released in October 2012
Courtesy Amazon

The most glaring difference between the new Kindle Paperwhite and its predecessors is a lit screen, though it still sports a gray scale E Ink display like previous Kindle e-readers. Rather than using backlighting like that of LCD screens, the Paperwhite uses lights set into the bevel at the bottom of the display to shine down onto the screen. A new Light Guide layer, a thin sheet of nano-imprinted flattened fiber optic cable, distributes the light uniformly over the entire screen, giving the illusion that it is backlit. But since the light is directed toward the screen and not toward your eyes, the Kindle Paperwhite retains the E Ink advantage of being easy on the eyes. Despite the addition of light, which is usually a big power drain, Paperwhite keeps battery usage at a minimum by using low-powered LEDs as the light source.

Underneath the Light Guide layer is a 2-point multi-touch capacitive touch-screen, a step up from the infrared (IR) touch-screens on the Kindle Touch and other competing e-readers. Below the touch-screen layer is the improved E Ink display. Compared to prior models, resolution went from 600 by 800 to 768 by 1024 pixels, and pixel density went from 167 PPI to 212 PPI. Paperwhite also has six specially designed fonts, up from three on the previous models.

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Other new features include:

  • You can now translate selected words into other languages via Bing Translator.
  • The Time to Read feature learns your reading habits and can give you an estimate of how much time it will take you to read a chapter or the book.
  • The X-Ray feature allows you to view a graphical representation of all the passages related to certain characters, places or recurring topics that occur across a page, a chapter or the book, and to look up information about these items. This feature is not available in all Kindle books.

Amazon also revamped the user interface for the Paperwhite, moving from a mostly text menu-based design to a more image-based one that has you scrolling through book covers. And to increase the chances of you buying more books directly through the device, it showcases a row of Kindle Singles for potential purchase on the home page just below a row of books from your own library.

Another major selling point of the Kindle is the way it interfaces with Amazon's massive inventory of electronic books. We'll look into that more in the next section.

Amazon's E-book Store

To get the most out of your Amazon Kindle, you'll need to create an account with Amazon.com. It's a free process -- all you'll need is a valid e-mail address. Once you have an account, you can register your Kindle with Amazon. This gives you access to the Kindle Store through Amazon's wireless network, called Whispernet.

The Amazon Kindle's modem gives you wireless access to an electronic store that includes more than 1 million books, newspapers and magazines [source: Amazon]. Amazon provides 3G wireless service without a monthly subscription fee on some devices -- you just have to pay a little more upon purchase of the device. The 3G devices also allow for WiFi access to the store, and the non-3G devices are WiFi-only. The Kindle allows you to buy books directly from the device. Alternately, you can browse books in the Kindle store using your computer's Web browser and purchase them from your computer. Amazon will send the electronic books directly to your device. You can also browse several blogs online.

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You don't need to own a computer to use the Kindle. That's one feature that sets Kindle apart from some of its competitors. You don't have to sync the Kindle to another machine to transfer files. You can browse, sample, purchase and download titles from the Kindle itself, provided you have access to a WiFi network or own one of the 3G enabled Kindles.

The files you access with a Kindle are in a proprietary format with the extensions AZW, AZW1, AZW2 or AZW3. These files include digital rights management (DRM) that prevents you from sharing your files with other users. The Kindle Keyboard 3G can handle Audible files (.aa or .aax) and MP3 files, two popular formats for audio books, but this feature is not present on the other current models. Amazon also can convert several other types of files into the AZW format so that the Kindle can read them. These file types include:

  • Text (.txt) files
  • Unprotected MOBI files (.mobi o­r .prc)
  • Word documents (.doc)
  • HTML files
  • Image files, including JPEG, GIF, BMP and PNG formats
  • PDF files

Each Kindle has a unique e-mail address. You can send compatible files to your Kindle by e-mailing them as an attachment to this address, visiting the Manage Your Kindle page at Amazon.com, finding the file in your library, and choosing to deliver it to the device. For files sent over the 3G network via Whispernet, Amazon charges a variable fee per file based on size and geographic location: $0.15 per megabyte within the U.S. and $0.99 per megabyte outside the U.S. Files delivered via WiFi or to supported Kindle applications on other devices are free of charge. Another way to avoid the fee is to e-mail the files to a special address at the free.kindle.com domain with the subject line "convert." Amazon will convert the files to Kindle format and send them to the e-mail address associated with your Amazon account. To transfer files from your Amazon account to your Kindle, you'll need to connect the device to a computer using the USB cable. This is one of the few times you'll have to connect your device to another machine.

Every purchase you make from Amazon goes into a special folder called Your Media Library. Amazon uses a cloud storage model where the file lives on one of Amazon's computer servers. That means even if you delete a book from your Kindle to conserve space, the record of your purchase will still exist on Amazon's servers. You can download the book again to your Kindle for no additional charge.

There are also free Kindle reading apps for many devices, including iPhone, iPad, Android devices and Mac and Windows-based computers, so that you can buy and read Kindle books without purchasing a Kindle. And Amazon now allows you to access items from your library using the Kindle Cloud Reader through certain Web browsers. Some manufacturers are even pre-installing a Kindle app on Windows 8 and Windows RT computers. One advantage to all the available apps is that you can partake of Amazon's Whispersync technology, which synchronizes the last page you read on one device across all your Kindle readers, including your physical Kindle if you have one, so that you can read on multiple devices without losing your page when you switch.

Some Kindle books can be accessed for free by purchasing a $79 per year Amazon Prime membership, which also provides 2-day free shipping on many products and access to free streaming movies and TV shows. Prime members can borrow a book at a time from the Kindle Owners' Lending Library, which contains over 180,000 titles. And some public libraries even have the ability to let you check out e-books on your device.

Popularity of the Kindle

Once a rare sight on city streets, the Kindle is now a common accessory for the daily commute.
Once a rare sight on city streets, the Kindle is now a common accessory for the daily commute.
Courtesy Amazon

Upon its debut, the Amazon Kindle cost $399. While some critics said the nearly $400 price tag was too high, the demand for the Kindle soon depleted Amazon's stock of the device. Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos offered an apology to customers. He claimed that the company sold out of its stock in less than six hours. Some Web journalists and bloggers suggested that Bezos' goal wasn't to offer a sincere apology -- it was to drive up more interest for the device [source: Sachoff].

When the Kindle became available again, the price dropped to $359. Amazon didn't release sales numbers to the general public, leaving many to question exactly how popular the device was. Netcasts such as CNET's "Buzz Out Loud" would occasionally report on Kindles listeners had spotted "in the wild." It seemed like the Kindle belonged to the realm of folklore -- you didn't own one, but a friend of a friend did.

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Amazon got a huge publicity boost in October 2008. That's when Oprah Winfrey named the Kindle as her favorite gadget. Oprah devoted most of an episode of her show to promoting the Kindle. She invited Jeff Bezos to the show to talk about the device, explaining its features to her audience. Oprah also announced an electronic coupon for the device. Viewers could enter the code "OprahWinfrey" when purchasing the Kindle and receive a $50 discount.

Amazon announced in December 2009 that the Kindle was the top-selling item in the Amazon store for the holiday season. As of the third quarter of 2012, Amazon's top-sellers were the Kindle Fire, followed by the new Kindle Paperwhite and then the entry-level Kindle. For the 2012 holiday season, you can buy an ad-supported basic Kindle for $69. The Kindle Paperwhite models cost $119 for WiFi-only or $179 for 3G plus WiFi. The Kindle Keyboard 3G plus WiFi is $139. And Amazon's tablet, the Kindle Fire currently comes in two models: original Kindle Fire for $159 and Kindle Fire HD for $199. Two more models, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 inch (22.6 centimeter) for $299 and Kindle Fire HD 8.9 inch (22.6 centimeter) 4G for $499, are expected out in late November 2012. All but the 4G are WiFi-only. Amazon also offers ad-free versions of these devices for higher prices. Shortly after release, the new Paperwhite models sold out and expected delivery times for them have grown to several weeks.

While Kindle sales have grown since Amazon launched the device, the company hasn't been free of criticism. Electronic copies of books sometimes cost about as much as physical copies, something that seems unfair to some people. Unlike a physical book, there are very few production and distribution costs associated with an electronic file.

Amazon also got into hot water when it remotely deleted copies of George Orwell's "1984" and "Animal Farm" stored on customers' Kindles. It turns out the publisher that made the books available didn't have the proper rights. Amazon credited customers the money they spent on the books and apologized for the situation. The incident brought to light a potential problem with electronic copies of books -- a gray area for consumers when it comes to owning digital information. The bad publicity didn't last long, though. In July 2010, Amazon announced that sales of electronic books surpassed hardcover sales for the first time [source: Miller]

More recently, Amazon was accused of terminating a woman's account and deleting the books from her device, stating that her account was linked to another that had abused its policies, but not providing much information and giving no recourse for resolution. While this is one isolated incident, it has prompted renewed concern about Digital Rights Management (DRM) and whether we own the content we purchase digitally [sources: Aguilar, Mosbergen].

Maybe you're a college student and you're hoping a Kindle will replace the need to lug around a pile of heavy textbooks. While a Kindle could hold an entire year's worth of college books (with room to spare), there's a problem. If the book has color illustrations or graphs, the Kindle won't be able to display them accurately. The Kindle Fire addresses this issue with its color screen, but it doesn't have the robust battery life of the E Ink models. And it's not likely that all of your books would be available in digital format.

But despite criticisms, the Kindle certainly has appeal. Amazon reported in May 2011 that e-book sales were surpassing physical book sales on its U.S. site, and reported the same of the U.K. site in August 2012 [sources: Rapaport, Strange]. With the surge in popularity of the Kindle and its competitors, the era of the electronic book seems to have arrived. Have we come to the end of the mega bookstore? And will there come a day when the idea of a physical book will be a quaint notion? Signs point to yes.

To learn more about e-books and related topics, peruse the links on the next page.

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

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